No surprises likely on UK University fees

To the surprise of pretty much nobody, either in the University or outside, my University has become the latest to announce that undergraduate tuition fees will rise to the full £ 9000 a year from 2012.

[Formal announcement from the Univ, noting that the higher fees will be combined with fee waiver and bursary schemes, and more outreach work, is here]

The fee announcement was widely anticipated, mainly because most people in the research-intensive English Universities predicted as soon as the Goverment’s announcements on fees were made back in the Autumn that all the “prestige” Universities would charge the maximum permissible £ 9000 across the board. For instance, I wrote in a comment somewhere back at the beginning of November:

“Though the Russell Group’s* statement does not say anything specific, one assumes their default position is likely to be to charge £ 9K across the board. At least, that would be my prediction.”

[*For non-UK readers, the Russell Group is made up of research-intensive, often older, UK Universities, including Oxford and Cambridge, Imperial, UCL, and most of the large “civic” Universities located in the UK’s major cities]

William Cullerne Bown over at Research Blogs (formerly named Exquisite Life) has a good analysis on “forecasting fees”. As he notes, the main question is really how many (or more likely how few) Universities in England will charge less than £ 9K per annum.

[Research Blogs are updating their list as more Universities announce their fee levels – latest version here. So far they are predicting that at least half the UK’s Universities will be setting their fees at the £ 9K maximum.]

The unspoken question is what will happen to student recruitment, and student numbers, once the fees go up. Of course, this is likely to be a question that “bites” differently in different institutions, and in different subjects. High end institutions, whose degree courses are harder to get onto, and whose degrees are valued higher by graduate recruitment for higher-paying careers, would clearly be predicted to face less fall-off in student numbers than institutions lower down the pecking order.

The next question is how the effects of fees will pan out across the subject spectrum. Scientists obviously wonder foremost about the sciences.

One argument is that numbers wanting degrees in sciences will be predicted to hold up better, since science degrees are seen to be more likely to lead to acceptably paid employment.

I wonder. In the biosciences, one could argue that job prospects in England look less than rosy at the moment. With the recent spate of announcements of cut-backs and redundancies in UK-based Pharma, scientific research jobs in the UK are on a clear downturn. The lack of real-terms growth in the research budget also means there are hardly going to be more jobs for graduate and postdoc researchers over the next few years.

In this context, Research Blogs also carries a sobering analysis of yesterday’s UK budget and the Government’s plans. Their take is that, for all the mentions of science, there is little or nothing concrete to make scientists more cheerful.

“So now that we have a more complete picture of the new government’s approach to science and technology, what we can say is that it almost certainly involves substantial cuts in spending at all stages. And whatever the short-term pressures, it is telling that there is no commitment to return to hi-tech support when the squeeze ends, no sign of the long-term support for science that the Royal Society and others have been arguing for.”

Now it may be true that, overall,  UK job prospects for people with scientific and numeracy skills will still remain better than for graduates in other disciplines, whatever the particular fate of the research sector. But that cannot really disguise the fact that, for most non-vocational degrees including scientific ones, graduate jobs are going to be harder to come by as the UK struggles to emerge from recession.  And pay in many of the jobs that are around is likely to be frozen, and thus declining in real terms in the face of rising inflation. So is it worth paying a lot of money to go to University if it is evidently less likely to lead to an adequately paid job than hitherto? Who will want to take on all that debt to become a nurse, for instance? Or a science teacher? Or an academic?!

Talking of student numbers generally, I reckon a fair number of academics in the UK might agree with the sentiment one hears expressed here and there that too many people currently go to University. We have essentially doubled entry to every science degree course we run in the last 15 years, as well as inventing degrees where previously there were none. The latter has often occurred by the “graduatizing” of previously largely non-graduate jobs  – e.g. this year at my University we admitted 300 or so students onto our Bachelor of Nursing degree, see above, which did not exist ten yrs ago.  But the number of students going to University is essentially a political decision in the UK. It has never really been in the Universities’ hands.

Of course, that might change. It is interesting to note that one of the things the UK Govt has been wholly silent on thus far (at least as far as I have heard)  is just how many places they are prepared to fund for those courses where they are still going to supply some of the teaching costs, e.g. in the sciences, or in medicine. There has been much talk on fees, but on student numbers… zip.

Finally, for people that work in Universities, students through the doors, and student fees in the bank, will mean jobs.  The unfairness of a system that will mean those of us who went to University essentially for free will now be teaching students paying upwards of ten grand a year, is not lost on anyone. But of course, people who work in Universities have bills to pay too. The general unhappiness with this state of affairs is one of the underlying threads of today’s industrial action by University academics in the UK.

Anyway, amid the uncertainties that remain, we can agree on one thing. Going to University in England is going to be much,  much more expensive for students, and for their families. How that will change the Universities remains to be seen.

About Austin

Middle-aged grouchy white male. Hair greying but hasn't all fallen out yet. Spreading waistline ill-concealed by baggy jumper.Semi-extinguished physiology researcher turned teacher. Known for never shutting up. Father of two children (aged 6 and 2) who try to out-talk him. Some would call that Karmic Revenge.
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7 Responses to No surprises likely on UK University fees

  1. Mike says:

    Austin, you have my utmost sympathy for what appears to be a situation spiraling out of control, round the U-bend of the British education system. At the moment, I really can’t imagine applying for any post that requires undergraduate teaching in the UK, and it’s something I have to consider every now and then, when research grants come closer to the end of their painfully short lives.

    I came through a ‘special’ undergraduate cohort – student grants actually existed during my first two years at University, albeit means tested, which meant I only benefitted during my first year I think. Certainly, I was had to take a loan during 3rd and 4th (Hons) years at Glasgow Uni, and still ended up with the maximum allowable student overdraft on top of my loan debts. Glasgow wasn’t a particularly expensive student city back then (mid-90s), and I lived an austere (though fun) life, but there would be no way I (or my family) could have afforded to fork out for tuition fees as well. As far as I know, Scottish students still won’t have to pay to attend Scottish Universities, but I’m left wondering how the Scottish government will still manage to afford free higher education, now that George Osborne appears to be demanding even more tax from the North Sea oil industry, which is essentially based in Scotland.

    I often wonder how the Uni lecturers down south (of Hadrian’s wall) will manage the changing expectations of ‘students’ (consumers) who have to pay large amounts of money to ‘learn’ (be taught) at higher education institutions. Having gone through some utterly soul destroying Pedagogical training at Helsinki Uni, where education is still free, the main message appeared to be “students’ expectations are changing – they come to Uni for different reasons now – you need to be able to reach the lowest common denominator to be a good teacher”. I hate to think what students who pay thousands of pounds a year for Uni will actually expect now. A lap dance after a tutorial? Will contracts be required that will stipulate exaclty what happens when a student fails a degree, but has paid up the fees? Will university degrees be further devalued following the (academically pointless, in my opinion) increase in student numbers you mention above?

    All of which is a long winded way of saying, “Sorry dude. Sucks to be you right now.”

    • Thanks Mike – that’s really cheered me up…

      On the Scottish question, I think the Universities there are all gearing up to be able to charge substantial fees, at least to English students attending the Scottish Univs (who currently pay, but only about half what they pay in England). Of course, that way, if the Scottish parliament changes it’s mind about HE being free to Scots students, they will have the fees regime already in place.

      What happens in Scotland depends, of course, on Scottish, as opposed to English, politics – though if the Westminster Govt cuts away the relevant bit of subsidy to the Edinburgh parliament (as seems pretty certain, if they’ve not done it already), then the decision becomes trickier for the Scots as the money has to come from somewhere.

      Apart from fee hikes for English students studying in Scotland, rumour is they would like to start chargeing EU students too – if they can loophole it past the EU legislation – who currently study in Scotland without paying tuition fees. This would all generate the money to allow them to keep education for Scottish students free. But doing this might mean Scottish students would have to be only about 1/3rd of the student body in the Scottish Univs to make the sums work.

      Re. “increased student expectations”, that is certainly what concerns everybody, both in terms of “more teaching” and “more attention/babysitting”, and also the question of “I’ve paid my £ nK so where’s my 2i…?”. Most staff are adamant that paying the fees will not guarantee grades, over our dead bodies etc etc.,but whether that becomes a tough line to hold in the new set-up… well, only time will tell. More appeals, and even lawsuits, are, I predict, a certainty.

  2. Laurence Cox says:

    I think I agree with everything you have written here. The issue about the number of people going to University is one that has concerned me for some years – in fact ever since Tony Blair announced the target of 50% of the population going to University. It seemed a wrong-headed approach then and it is clear that it is unaffordable now.

    In effect, the new fee structure means that graduates will pay marginal tax rates of 40% (20% income tax, 11% National Insurance and 9% Graduate contribution on earnings over £21,000 – well below the median income) and 50% on earnings over £44,000 (40%, 1%, 9%) while a non-graduate would have to be earning £150,000 before they had to pay a 50% rate of income tax. This seems to me to be unreasonably penalising graduates. Having graduated myself in 1969 when tuition fees were all paid by the State and local councils provided reasonable grants for living expenses, I understood that my parents generation’s taxes paid for my education and my taxes should pay in turn for the next generation’s education. Now we are expecting graduates to pay for their own education.

    The other issue that I think has been swept under the carpet, is what happens after 30 years when each graduate’s contribution ends. Those who have paid off all their graduate debt will be in a small minority and the State will have to write off the remaining debts of the other graduates. This looks to me like an inter-generational transfer of wealth; the taxpayers in 30 years time having to pick up the tab for government spending now. Again this seems unfair to me.

    Lastly, I wonder why we have the structure of universities that we have with so many separate degree-awarding bodies. If we purely wanted an \academic sausage machine\ that took in bright school students and turned out graduates at the lowest cost, why not expand the Open University which only charges £4000 fees and is a fully scalable model of University-level education. If we decide that there is more to attending University than lectures and tutorials, then perhaps we should go down the route of \community colleges\ with most undergraduate students living at home. What is clear, I think, is that we need radical solutions to the provision of university education if it is to survive for another generation without bankrupting us.

    • Austin says:

      Hi Laurence.

      Have you seen Prof David Colquhoun’s ideas about University education? He offers some concrete ideas for what might change, with a specific eye on what it would mean for science degrees.

      I know quite a few people who are sympathetic to the argument that one could summarise as “Why should a postman pay for your University education?” – including my Better Half. Like some other people from European countries, she feels that a related problem is that Britain has made a complete dog’s breakfast of vocational education. In many European countries vocational education.uses a

      [subsidised apprenticeships + day release or short courses at college]

      – model. In the UK, apprenticeships seem to be largely gone, and you go to college/University full-time for 3 yrs to do a hairdressing degree, or whatever. So part of the University expansion in the UK is due to there now being degrees in things which previously were not taught in 3-yr degree courses. The Boss argues that this is why people are cheesed off (as well as the bill being so big) Of course, if one cut back numbers (especially on 3-yr degrees in vocational things) then the cost would go down, and/or vocational education could perhaps be sorted out.

      My dad was one of the founding Professors of the Open University and worked for them for many years, so I have a lot of time for the OU. Of course, they are now in some trouble as (i) almost all their income was from the teaching funding that is being cut; and (ii) lots of other people have copied bits of their distance learning approach. I hope they manage to ride it out. As you say, if people are really going to be questioning going to Univ for 3 yrs full-time on cost grounds, then the OU should be well-positioned to offer a tried and tested alternative.

  3. nico says:

    It seems the chancellor has a very unique way of dealing with things. He will give universities that charge the full 9k and oil companies that do not pass on the 1p rebate a long, hard disapproving look. Then will move on to look for a disabled person to throw out on the street.

    • Well, as you’d expect, Nico, I have a rather low opinion of Mr Osborne, and indeed of the entire government. Vince Cable and David Willetts, the two people with responsibility for Universities, were possibly among the few of the Coalition’s ranking people I had any respect for, but their bungling of the University fees business has been spectacular, in my opinion. And I would also suggest they don’t seem to have much pull with Osborne and the Treasury, judging by the forward planning (or lack of it) for science and technology.

      But then, of course… I would say that, wouldn’t I? I guess you’d have to ask some of the people more in sympathy with the Govt, like Richard and Henry, what they think.

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